Read an Excerpt
High Risk, High Reward
When I first got hired as a lifeguard, I couldn’t swim. It sounds unbelievable, but it’s true. My first job had been as a fast-food fry cook, but my arms only had to be burned by hot grease so many times before I knew that wasn’t the job I wanted. I needed a change. My mom had heard that the country club near the projects was hiring lifeguards. Apparently, the pool was having staffing issues, probably because it was in a Blood neighborhood. The fact that I could barely dog-paddle didn’t even appear on Mom’s radar—or mine. If it could get me out of that boiling hot kitchen, I was willing to give almost anything a shot. Even being a lifeguard.
I was up-front in the interview about my lack of swimming skills, but to my surprise, the organization hired me on the spot, saying I could learn on the job. It would be sink or swim for me—literally. I was wary, but the director promised she would work with me. She assured me I’d learn what I needed to know. I definitely almost drowned, but I stuck with the training. Perhaps more importantly, the director stuck with me. She guided my learning process and kept me on the right track, helping me apply good principles.
Under the director’s guidance, I swam daily, learning the strokes and studying books on lifeguarding in my off-hours. I was putting in the work, but because I wasn’t training alone or trying to handle things by myself, I advanced at a rapid rate. My body grew stronger, my swimming more secure, and my lifeguard skills became top-notch. Eventually, I was able to pass the lifeguard test and start taking shifts at the club. Life looked good from atop the lifeguard stand, and at the end of the summer, I was awarded Lifeguard of the Year.
How had I gone from grease-splattered arms to a trophy in my hands? My desperation to escape a terrible job led to taking a risk I wouldn’t normally have taken—applying for a position that was above my abilities and was in the dead center of a gang neighborhood. I made a choice to seek accurate information and leverage the wisdom of an expert guide, and in doing so, I saw my prospects totally transform. Though born of desperation, my push for a new job had given me so much more than better summer employment and a trophy. It gave me a taste for agency.
Perhaps up till this point, you’ve felt that life has just been happening to you. Seasons come, seasons go, and all you do is react—never act. While there are elements to life that will always be beyond your control, there are still areas in which you can take charge and create agency today. Creating agency simply means that you take responsibility for your own life, much like Ruth did in Scripture.
Ruth didn’t have a lot of choices. She was a woman from Moab who had married a son of Israel, and a recent string of deaths in the immediate family had left her in a precarious situation. Her husband, brother-in-law, and father-in-law had all died, and in that ancient patriarchal society, that meant she didn’t have any means to provide for herself. Her mother-in-law, Naomi, told Ruth to return to her birth family and remarry into another household. For Ruth, that would mean remaining in Moab, going back to her clan, and returning to Moabite ways.
Instead, Ruth took her agency into her own hands. “Here’s what we’re going to do,” she told Naomi. “We’re sticking together. We’re heading back to your country together. Where you’re going, I’m going. Where you die, I’ll die.” Ruth was all in. She was a “ride or die” type of friend. Ruth could make it in the hood.
After traveling over mountains and across a desert, the women arrived back in Israel but not to a warm welcome. Naomi was a widow, which was a strike against her, and Ruth was even worse—she was both a widow and a foreigner. At every turn, they faced adversity and hardship.
Yet Ruth’s agency brought her to the field of Boaz, the extended family member through whom her Creator would provide for her and her mother-in-law. By the time we hear the last of Ruth, she had gained a new husband, a home, and a child. Naomi cherished Ruth and doted on Ruth’s new baby. And the women from the community declared that Ruth was better to Naomi than seven sons, an enormous compliment in those days.
Ruth’s transformation started when she looked at the choices in front of her and rejected them all. She exercised agency, prioritizing a relationship and family loyalty to reach something different. Through it all, Ruth’s Creator blessed her. Her life ended with more joy than she had likely ever imagined possible, and the change in her trajectory began when she stepped out and began making choices.
When we were little, everyone made our decisions for us, and maybe rightly so. Little kids will do anything: try to eat pinecones, ride their bikes on the roof, drink out of the toilet. But as we mature, we realize that we are capable of making informed decisions.
Harnessing your agency means you start making choices for yourself and then, after seeking complete information, you decide how best to apply what you’ve learned. You don’t allow others to make your decisions for you, even when it’s “for your own good.” You control your boundaries, your involvement, and even whom you choose to take your advice from and how you apply it. In short, agency is choice. When you are not making a choice, that is a choice in itself. Not to decide is to decide—it’s the decision to be passive and let others dictate your life.
Your agency is not determined by your circumstances or your place in society. Like Ruth, you’ll find those matters beyond your control. What you can control, however, is how you respond:
• You can see yourself as a victim or a victor.
• You can accept the status quo or push for change.
• You can view yourself as powerless or learn to exercise the power you have.
This is the essence of your agency. The choices are laid out before you, and when you take responsibility for your life in how you navigate those choices, you can move past desperation to seek the right information, apply it, and experience transformation. When you’re no longer just existing—when you’re fully living, wholly in control of your choices and making the best possible informed decisions—you will experience holistic health.
For His Glory
Practicing agency doesn’t mean that you rule out the work of your Creator. He created all and rules over all. But it’s also important to note that when he created you, he gave you emotions, intellect, and a will. He gave you the ability to make choices. You are not a puppet or a robot. You have a mind, a heart, and a spirit. Your Creator expects you to use these responsibly—not to squander them.
One day, we will all stand before the judgment seat of our Creator and give an account of our lives. Though overflowing with love and compassion, our Creator is also all-seeing, all-knowing, wise, and perfectly just. He will not hold us responsible for matters that were beyond our control. But he also knows exactly which matters those were. Your Creator knows what choices you could have made and the areas where you simply shrugged and moved on without even trying. When you give your account, will you be able to say you made the very most of the one precious life he’s given you?
Seeing Your Options
You really can chart a new path. By making choices about what you want to accept and what you want to reject from what life has handed you, you can strike out and claim something different for yourself. But here’s the kicker: I can’t tell you exactly what your steps will look like because those steps depend on you and your ultimate destination.
Nobody’s path is the same; therefore, nobody’s journeys will look identical. For me, I wanted to be a lifeguard, so that meant learning to swim. For you, the steps will look totally different because your destination is different. When it comes to transformation, there’s no packaged system or one-size-fits-all plan.
I can’t tell you exactly what your next move is. It’s through exercising your own agency that the next step will reveal itself to you. What I can do is shine a light ahead and show you that the path you’re currently walking can diverge—and you can choose which direction you want to take. You can create your own agency. You can awaken a better you.
Talk It Out
1. What does it mean to exercise agency over your own life?
2. Describe a time when you exercised agency. What did that situation look like? What were the results?
3. How will exercising your agency change your life?
Work It Out
List three areas of your life in which you’re currently exerting your agency:
Look back on page 13 at the transformation areas you ranked. In your top two areas, pinpoint at least three specific things you want to gain control over in the coming days. If you were to practice agency in those areas, what might that look like? What could potentially change?
Write It Out
Spend five minutes freewriting about agency. Brainstorm steps you might take toward leveraging your power to choose for your own good and for the good of others.